Another story about a tax collector. However, instead of a parable about a tax collector Jesus has an interesting encouter with a tax collector named Zacchaeus who has taken to climbing trees in order to see Jesus.
Scripture: Luke 19: 1-10
When was the last time any of you climbed a tree? That’s what I thought, and my answer is the same, a long time ago.
Who climbs trees? Children climb trees, much to their parent’s dismay and fear. But it is primarily children who climb trees.
Which leads me to ask why is Zacchaeus, a grown man, a very rich individual, and the chief tax collector in the Jericho area climbing a tree?
Adults don’t climb trees, we just decided that. Children climb trees. What is Zacchaeus doing at the top of a tree? What is Luke trying to tell us in this gospel story?
Let’s talk a little bit about Zacchaeus. He would be a Jew who is now working for the Roman Empire as a tax collector. We are told he is the Chief Tax Collector, which means he holds considerable status and influence. He is an important individual, even if many of the local residents don’t like him.
Lis Vale-Ruiz writes, “It is the story of a person who belongs to an oppressed people by birth but joins the ranks of the foreigners/oppressors by trade, resulting in gain for the person and their family while contributing to the oppression of the community.” (Lis Vale-Ruiz)
This passage makes direct connections to our passage from last week. Last week we had a Pharisee and a tax collector in prayer. The tax collector confesses in prayer before God and now Jesus is breaking bread with a tax collector. Prayer leads to transformation, prayer leads us to seek out Jesus, to know and understand him better.
Zacchaeus should be the villain of this story. He’s a tax collector and plays a hand in oppressing the local people. The passage reads “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” Zacchaeus is not liked and the people are upset with Jesus over who he is associating with.
In this way Luke’s gospel tends to portray Jesus as a bit of glutton and drunk, while not overtly saying it. That is the image that the people gathered may glean about Jesus. It is also an image that the Pharisees and those who oppose Jesus develop. Jesus is always eating and drinking with sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors. Honestly, if I behaved like Jesus did you all might be wondering about me. We like to keep up appearances and the idea of perhaps hanging out with a rougher crowd doesn’t sit well with our protestant values. I wonder if that thought should give us pause, cause us to stop, and think about the assumptions we make. Remember the lesson from last week of how the Pharisee judges.
Zacchaeus clearly wanted to see Jesus. I mean the man climbs a tree because he was too short to see through or above the crowd. Something has drawn Zacchaeus to Jesus and if we pay attention, we see that Jesus is also drawn to him. Zacchaeus’ comment to repay four times anything he might have stolen is a confession. Make no mistake, Zacchaeus is corrupt and dishonest, but this act of confession is heard by the crowd. It’s said publicly and while he might be exaggerating about his claims of repayment what is happening here is an act of transformation. His act of confession to repay aligns him with the goals of the kingdom. That wealth should be shared for the benefit of everyone. Zacchaeus is having a change of heart. Again, a continuation of the theme we saw in the reading from last week with tax collectors confession during prayer. These passages don’t immediately follow one another, but Luke is drawing on our memory to make a connection and a point.
Prayer and confession of wrongdoing leads to changed behaviour. Luke is connecting the anonymous tax collector from last week to the Zacchaeus the head tax collector this week. Zacchaeus is seeking Jesus and in doing so is breaking away from the existing economic order which benefits the rich and the occupying Romans. The confession and desire to share wealth relates to the goals and desires of the kingdom.
Luke is a good writer and he does some interesting things in this passage. Look at the actions of Jesus and Zacchaeus: Zacchaeus is in a tree, because he’s short and can’t see. This forced Jesus to look up. When he sees Zacchaeus, Jesus asks him to climb down. Zacchaeus now stands before Jesus and because he’s short he has to look up at Jesus.
Why else tell us Zacchaeus is short, why else have him climb to an elevated position. If Luke just wanted Jesus and Zacchaeus to meet that’s what would have been written. However, the use of space and height also speaks to the social position of the individuals. Zacchaeus is rich and influential; he is part of the upper crust of society and has an elevated stature. Luke physically places him above everyone else in the story. However, Luke is demonstrating that the message of the gospel, the message of Jesus is one that levels and equalizes society. This is demonstrated when Zacchaeus comes down and now must look up at Jesus who was a poor itinerant preacher that relied on the hospitality of others.
Jesus humbles Zacchaeus and in the process elevates those who Zacchaeus has oppressed, even though they chastise Jesus for associating with Zacchaeus. This passage, much like others in Luke’s gospels, show how the divine thread for living does not line up with our own social and economic norms. God wants to humble those who oppress the poor for their own gain. It’s not a complete flip of power, but a leveling of the playing field.
Jesus is interested in seeking the lost and saving them because this is what will result in salvation for all people. Let’s be clear, this isn’t about saving Zacchaeus soul, but of going down the destructive path of self gain at the expense and exploitation of others. When Zacchaeus turns from that path and offers to repay four times as much as he has defrauded, at that point he is in tune with the goals of God’s kingdom.
Forgive me my debts, as I forgive my debtors. That’s what we pray, sometimes we say sins, sometimes we say trespasses but debts is the better translation and it refers to financial obligations. Zacchaeus is promising to repay those he defrauded, to repay the debts. That is living out on Earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.
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